Ladies and gentlemen, I am extremely glad to have the opportunity of being here at the University to assist the opening of this new Centre, which I have the feeling has been going for some time already. It has been fascinating to see something of the activities here and I can see there is an enormous amount going on under some very interesting management.
For me it is particularly intriguing to see what is happening at this Centre, considering that 15 years ago I remember first saying something about organic agriculture which was met with a certain amount of vilification. Now it's interesting to see even the odd polite article in Farmer's Weekly appearing and even invitations to open organic agriculture centres at universities. So, I think it must be looking up in some way or another.
As far as I can make out, the real reason for setting up the Centre was, correct me if I that is not the case, in response to the ever-increasing demand for affordable, he said in inverted commas, high-quality organic produce. Clearly there is an enormous demand out there and when you think that still 70 per cent of that demand has to be satisfied by foreign produce we have got a long way to go to catch up. This is what I hope the Centre will be able to assist with.
I did want to say, and you asked me to say what I thought, that I don't believe you can have all these things without finding a way of putting the cultural bits back into agriculture. I happen to be one of the people who feel that the cultural side of agriculture was taken out, unfortunately, and I think we are now beginning to realise that.
We have an unbalanced situation. All I intend to do, again for what it's worth, is to bring the balance back into what we know about, not just agriculture but architectural, medical or in forestry terms as well. I believe this is especially important as far as agriculture is concerned, and what the Centre is doing here on the organic front, at a time when smaller family farms in Scotland are threatened as never before.
I happen to feel deeply concerned about the plight that many of these smaller livestock farmers, in particular, are having to endure. Apart from anything else, whole communities and Scottish rural culture, which I happen to believe in deeply, is very much at stake, so many of those farmers have my deepest concerns and sympathy at this very difficult time. I hope this Centre can help provide the necessary assistance and encourage it to help these farmers who are struggling to survive. Perhaps there are alternatives for many of them now to consider apart from elements of diversification.
As I was saying earlier, demand for organic produce is at an all-time high and sales of the key commodities including meat, vegetables and milk are expected to double this year. The current rate of growth of the market is estimated only by supply, much of which is coming from abroad, so there are real opportunities for farmers at a time when other avenues are becoming increasingly unprofitable. Obviously it is very difficult for people to know which way to turn in order, simply, to survive.
I am one of these rare breeds of people who wanted to go into organic farming. Nowadays the arguments for such farming are not just economic. Research at Highgrove, where I have the Duchy of Cornwall Home Farm, and elsewhere, has, I think, shown a whole range of environmental benefits which is one of the more important aspects of this, let alone the cultural and social benefits which, I believe, will become more and more apparent as time goes on.
The best example, on the environmental side, is found in birds. We have seen in this country, well the whole of the United Kingdom, a catastrophic decline in birds, particularly in Wales where the RSPB produced a very worrying, I thought, report a few years ago where species such as lapwing, skylark, great partridge and yellowhammer are in rapid decline due to the growth of intensive farming; and there are comparative studies that show, for instance, much higher levels of skylark breeding on organic farms.
There are a number of possible reasons why birds, as well as butterflies and other insects, do so much better on organic farms. Clearly, the absence of chemicals, the use of rotations, the presence of livestock and winter fodder - a very important feature, it seems to me - and the amount and size of hedges all have a part to play so the organic system is quite simply less intensive, delivering quality rather than quantity.
Here, in the Grampian region, with its tradition of mixed farming based on rotations, the decline is perhaps a little less severe but even here birds such as the yellowhammer and the tree sparrow, that is the really worrying thing. All of us here grew up with sparrows everywhere; now you hardly see them. In fact I was talking to a man from the British Trust of Ornithology who said that sparrows are now in danger as they've shrunk to such a degree. But I am glad to say that there are quite a lot re-appearing at Highgrove, so the system does work if you look at the benefits of the organic approach.
So ladies and gentlemen, to conclude, I very much hope that everyone connected with this Centre will feel proud in their role in promoting a system of agriculture which provides food of the highest quality, supports a keen, diverse and attractive environment and provides, what's more, sustainable rural employment at a most difficult time. It was interesting talking to Mr Rose from Dalcross, at his farm where he is already employing quite a lot more people on his vegetable production project.
Finally, I just want to say that it seems to me that the demand for organic produce is more than anything else a direct consequence of great concern that has mounted over the years about modern scientific farming systems which, I think, have become unbalanced. We have depleted the land and use animals as machines. We are now seeing the consequences of that and, hopefully, we are learning from our mistakes before it is too late.
I believe that what really happened was that agriculture lost its soul and that organic agriculture can put the soul back into farming. By soul I mean that bit that isn't necessarily provable by science. It is, nevertheless, something that actually leads to being able to work in harmony with nature. It's a very peculiar theme and certainly, I believe that management of a farm requires a bit of art and a great deal of science but you can't just do the science and not the art.
If I may say so, finally, it would be a tragedy of immense proportions if we repeat the same mistake, yet again, by becoming obsessed with genetically modified crops only to find out the inevitable consequences in 30 years time. So organic agriculture, to be truly organic, must be balanced and work in harmony with nature and on that final note, it gives me great pleasure to declare the new Centre open.